Day-to-day

Small roadside temple. It’s right by the base of a steep hill (the road has switchbacks) so I used taking this picture as an excuse to take a breather.

I figured I would write a little bit more about what my daily activities have been, although they are still pretty scattered with trying to “figure things out”. Regarding my research, I’m waiting to talk to some people about data for one aspect of it, but also I’ve spent a lot of time traveling to different places in the city to meet with people. In the meantime, I fully engaged in looking for apartments this past weekend, which has been exhausting but also interesting. (Walking around endless, randomly numbered and labeled alleys looking for a specific building in 90+, sunny heat was kind of a downside. But an unexpected treat was that I got to  ride on the back of a moped for my first, but probably not the last, time.)

Otherwise, I have been appreciating living on the outskirts of the city because it means that it is easy to get out into the mountains every morning. Well, by any metric, they’re more like large foothills, but they still get called mountains by the all of the hiking trail signs. In any case, it’s out of the city and it’s definitely not flat.

I have to admit, I was a little bit amazed when I first discovered that I could actually visit tea farms every day. I didn’t realize it would be so easy to find them, but there is actually Baochong (包重) tea grown about a mile from where I am currently living. It seems like tea of varying qualities really is grown all over the place.

Sometimes I climb Jiuwu Shan (九五山), which has this view of the city.

Looking at Taipei from Jiuwu Shan – a small peak in the southeast of Taipei. Most of the people that I see there in the morning are probably coming from this direction (the west, closer to the center of the city) whereas I approach the ridge from the east.

Sometimes I just go off on small roads that leave the city (this is my favorite thing to do. The biggest downside is when people have scary unleashed dogs. I slowed to a walk and carefully passed through a pack of about 4 large black dogs on the road this morning. They followed me for several yards, growling and barking, which has been the scariest encounter yet.)

If I go the right direction in the morning, the air literally becomes sweeter as I leave the city. It smells fruity, a bit like apricots, but not in a cloying way. I am not sure if it is actually fruit being grown in the small farms near the road or if it’s a plant in the natural forest patches, or both. It makes it a little bit harder to convince myself to turn around and run back to the air pollution.

Tea

To be honest, it had been a long time since I had had really good tea.

The kind of tea that is so good that it makes you stop thinking about other things. Tea so good that, for fleeting, existential moments, there is nothing else in the world but the million, minute sensations relating to the tea. Grassy, sweet, bitter, bright, earthy flavors and smells coating your tongue making your mouth dance with the complexity. The feeling of the delicate cup in your hand. The heat that the freshest sips leave on your lips.

Drinking tea can be an amazing experience.

I realized this when I was studying abroad in China three years ago. Within one of our first weeks in Beijing, some of my friends who were also studying Chinese and I happened to stop at a tea shop nearby campus. I was excited by the idea of loose leaf green teas that were better than in the States, and I needed the caffeine for the early morning classes. I had been a tea-addict since early high school, and had upgraded to the general American version of “aficionado” with loose leaf teas a while back. I was delighted to explore the great world of Chinese tea, which seemed to promise a greater appreciation for delicately-processed green teas which I knew little about, but sounded exotic (jasmines and dragonwells and gunpowder…)

We ended up returning to that same humble tea shop several times throughout the summer, and passing many hours with the shop owner while she brewed us countless cups. Her patience and her smile were encouraging, despite our occasional failures to communicate. Between telling us about the tea that we were drinking, she gave us snippets of the culture of tea and told us classic stories, demonstrated traditions. Of course, she also asked us questions, and we did our best to keep a dialog (despite language skills of varying levels). Sometimes her son of about 5 would run through the shop while we would be sitting and chatting. Sometimes she just taught us how practical know-how of how long to brew this tea, how to pour it, how many times it can be brewed. The ever-present bustle of Beijing was only separated by a glass window pane, but the way we drank tea made it easy to feel serene and focus on the simple conversation.

My friends and I happily purchased a great deal of teas from her, not out of obligation but because they were delicious. Drinking them with the shop keeper had rendered them ever better. I had never derived such pleasure from tea, never known such complex flavors and satisfaction. I thought that the Chinese teas in China would be cheaper, but even though they weren’t, I realized now that the experience was worth it. I spent more money on tea and tea accessories than I did on any other souvenirs that summer (including a skateboard with light-up wheels) . I brought these things home, and quite a few times recreated for myself the joyous experience that it was to sit and drink tea this way: the tiny cups, fresh brews, delightfully bright flavors. At some point, a friend of my parents also gave me some very high quality tea from Taiwan, which I treasured and drank in small batches on quiet weekend mornings when I needed a treat. One of my friends who shared this experience with me went to Taiwan the following summer and brought back some excellent teas and a nice clay teapot as well, and my love for tea this way was sustained through these things.

But the teas got old, and I was busy with life as an undergraduate and it was seldom that I found someone to sit and drink with me in this style. (I also realize now, that I rarely asked anyone.) By the end of last year, my carefully-selected teas from China and Taiwan ran out, and the time spent in a small tea shop in Beijing was a distant memory. I have, of course, continued to drink teas of all kinds in the past several years. It had been a long time, however, since I had really sat and savored a tiny cup of tea the way I had in the past.

On Sunday, I had a chance to once again sit and drink tea slowly with someone who knows far more about tea than I can even guess about. David and Austin of Tearroir were gracious enough to take me and several others along to one of their favorite tea houses in Muzha, where we drank tea for several hours with Master Gao-Que (more on him in Austin’s post here).

Tea master Gao-Que and his tea house, which was his own house.

I remember again why I love tea. It’s sometimes for the caffeine and the powerful kick of bergamot oil in Earl Gray in the morning. But I also love tea for the nearly unimaginable richness of culture and flavor that can be appreciated in a tiny cup of oolong brewed by a tea master.

Chinese tea culture is as mystical and ancient and complicated as you might imagine, but you can take some relief in that it’s also just as obscure for a modern Chinese person as it is for a modern foreigner. It is also pleasurable this way. There aren’t very many how-to books written (certainly not in English, maybe there are some in Chinese, but I don’t know) that one can use to self-educate about this mystical world. It seems to me that the best way to learn about tea is to share it with people who know more than you. And that is an excellent way to spend some time.

Perhaps I have waxed on a little bit more romantically about this than you care to read. In sum, I am happily re-inspired to chase the experience of drinking good tea, and I look forward to this exploration while I’m here in Taiwan.

 

Tea being brewed for comparisons. This is a very objective way to brew different teas (not in clay pots that can absorb oils through the years). It also allows for you to see the tea leaves better, which can be an important part of judging their quality.

Tea 101:

All tea comes from a tree called Camellia sinensis (that is, all true “tea”; other herbal brews are more properly called “tisanes”)

There are two different species of this tree, and then many different cultivars that are used to produce the variety of teas sold throughout the world.

Tea is produced by plucking off the freshest leaves from the tree and processing them by varying methods of oxidation, drying, roasting and fermentation. These processes give rise to the major differences between types of tea. For example, black teas are thoroughly oxidized whereas green teas are less so or not at all.

Obviously, the processing methods have large impacts on the outcome of the teas, such as the clear differences in flavor and caffeine content. But did you know that the exact weather conditions of when the tea was picked from the trees does as well? The season? Clearly the location also plays a role: soils, altitude, aspect – these all influence the productivity of the plants, and thus the compounds and thicknesses of the leaves, which give rise to the flavor. Appreciating these nuances are what one can do one takes the time to carefully brew a tiny cup of tea and savor it.

We had a great lunch up on Maokong afterwards.

The little things

A view of one of the major roads through central Taipei with a fisheye lens on my iPhone. (Other unrelated photos accompany this post as well).

I find that the most interesting aspects of being immersed in a foreign culture is that it really is countless miniscule things that act synergistically to make the society different. Some things are impossible to miss (shop keepers yelling “歡迎光臨” at you if you even approach their store), others are more subtle (eating or drinking while walking seems to be only for kids or nightmarkets – a standard that I break all the time as an impatient and uncivilized foreigner. I remember seeing people tackling everything from pizzas to froyo while walking down the street in Providence all the time and there wasn’t anything strange about it).

Supposedly, the negative reactions of culture shock come from this relentless onslaught of these minor differences: continuous violation of small societal norms that you previously took for granted as universal norms builds up to psychological frustration. Strangely enough, I am somewhat looking forward to the experience of culture shock – I don’t know if I have ever been in a truly foreign place for enough for it to take hold, so I am curious as to how it actually feels.

Best pun-for-a-name I’ve seen so far. Pretty lame – I am keeping my eye out for better ones.
Fancy waffles at a coffee shop that my future-roommate and I used for wifi access for several hours while looking up apartments this afternoon.
…but these waffles at the Shifan Daxue night market were way better. I plan to return to eat more of these.

I bring this up partially because I bought my first item of Taiwanese clothing today. I’ll probably buy more, considering that I didn’t bring much and it’s not too expensive. When it was on the rack, I thought “oh awesome – that sweater has a tiger on it! I will totally wear a sweater with a doofy-looking tiger on it! Also, it comes with a navy and maroon striped tank top! I like stripes! I like navy and maroon!” It looked so me – maybe it had a little Taiwanese flair to the loose sweater paired with the long tank, but I had no worries that this style was still me. This would be an easy addition to my wardrobe. So after a minor bit of haggling with the shop keeper, I spent ~$13 and bought the ensemble.

Curious, I tried it on first thing when I got back to my room and looked in the mirror. I looked so Taiwanese that I laughed out loud. How could I have ever thought that this was my style (not that I am that even that particular about my fashion)? And then I realized that probably seeing other people wearing outfits of this fashion all day has just started to slowly sink in. Will my fashion change while I am here? Probably a little bit. Will I look like a total FOB when I get back to the States? Probably not really. But maybe a little bit…

Big, cutie snails that I see all the time.

So why’s it called Jiufen anyway?

For most Americans, it seems a little sunburn is just a part of summer. I have thankfully avoided it pretty well throughout recent years but, Friday destroyed that streak of careful living for me. The research group that I am joining took a collective trip to the ocean side, which is both as easy as you’d expect when you are on a small island but also as long of a trip as could be expected when said island is full of jagged-relief mountain peaks (lots of tunnels and bridges seem to be involved with driving around from what I’ve seen so far).

To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the trip to start out with. This is the email that I got:

“Dear all,

Summer is coming to an end and Kiribati is waving viciously, so…we’ll be prepared to conquer! On the 14th of Sep. 0900 sharp our well-equipped-trained troop will gather at the front yard of our lab.

Destination: The most dangerous rocky shore in the Northeastern Taiwan.
Goal: For the warriors, to prove our state-of-the-art weaponry are functioning and get a core out of the largest coral if there ever is. (so help me God)
For the cheerleaders, exercise as much as you can, have fun and get yourselves well tanned.
Kind reminder, for those who with delicate skin, you might like to wear long sleeves and pants instead of bikini if you don’t want to be cut by dead coral or seashell. Fresh water available and changing clothes possible.
At ease and cheers!”

So clearly the purpose of the trip was some parts work, but also some parts fun. Turned out to be a LOT of fun, and a rather unfortunately small amount of work. It was raining pretty hard in Taipei when we loaded the equipment (diving tanks, generator, air compressor, wetsuits, fruit for snacking that I still don’t know the name of – this is going to be a common trend – coral driller…) into the back of a van and a cheerful group of people into the front. The rain and the cold front with it represent the start of the winter season, commented someone with a PhD in an earth science. But thankfully the weather was also highly patchy, as predicted by the same scientist (a meterological trait of Taiwan, due to the mountains). By the time that we reached the coast, the sun was full, and warm winds blew around us on the rugged (as promised), but beautiful rocky shore of northern Taiwan.

Field equipment, and warm ocean waters waiting to be tested.

We spent the day in a small outcropping near some shellfish aquaculture pens, testing diving equipment and drillers for taking core samples; but also jumping off rocks, and swimming. Unfortunately, the air compressor for the drilling equipment wasn’t working so well, so very little testing of the corer actually occurred. Instead, there I did get a chance to learn how to use scuba diving equipment – which was great!

As morning waned into afternoon, we packed up our stuff, changed (except that I didn’t actually bring much in the way of a change of clothes, oops) and then headed out to find a late lunch. We stopped at Jiufen, which we had driven past on the way up.

A town huddled in mountains right by the sea – no wonder it captures the inspiration of movie makers and draws tourists.

Jiufen is a small town perched atop beautiful mountains that rise right next to the coast. There was once a mining boom, which still influences the area. One of the most obvious influences that we had a chance to stop and observe was a tributary carrying acid mine drainage out to the ocean. The plume of water is so low in pH (1-2) that iron compounds are soluble. When the water begins to mix with the ocean and the pH is raised, the iron precipitates, and appears as a dark red-brown plume. This makes it easy to see how the plume’s length and characteristics vary based on the tides.

The red color of this small river is due to acid waters draining from former gold mines above.

Now, Jiufen is a tourist attraction, originally sparked by a movie that featured it, but obviously sustained because of its beauty, idyllic nature, and good eats, of course. We ate, some of us climbed to the mountain peak near where we parked (which I have already forgotten the name of – so many mountains!) and headed home as the fog and rain descended once more.

Busy, tourist-filled street with lots to eat and buy! Note the influence of the mountain on the angle of the street…
Taro balls (yuyuan 芋圓) seemed to be a specialty. We got some deliciously QQ ones and enjoyed them with this view.

At some point in the car, I asked, “Hey, why is it called ‘jiufen’ anyway?” Jiufen, or 九份literally means ‘nine parts’. No one really knew, nor had thought much about it – so a smart phone was whipped out and the internet was consulted. Everyone found the answer supplied online to be amusing, but, as is sort of typical of my level of Chinese right now, I didn’t really understand what was read (if it’s humorous, I usually don’t get it). Well, the English Wikipedia article says “During the first years of the Qing Dynasty, the village here housed nine families, thus the village would request “nine portions” every time shipments arrived from town…” which doesn’t sound all that funny to me, so I wonder if there’s a different explanation spread around in Chinese…

Temple rooftops surrounded by mists.

Photo upload!

Pictures instead of words!

(Actually, pictures plus words for combined expressive power):

台北101
Taipei 101: The flagship modern skyscraper of Taipei (and of Taiwan). I haven’t gone up to the observation tower at the top yet, but have walked around in the swanky shopping areas at its base.
海邊的沙岩
Some sandstone on the rugged northern shore of Taiwan with awesome sculpting from the waves and chemical weathering patterns creating pretty rings of color (more description of this excursion to come, I promise!)
刨冰
A classic Taiwanese snack – shaved ice. It’s great for when the weather is hot and you’re kind of thirsty, but craving sweet things (my constant state). I went for very simple and classic with this one – just some red bean, brown sugar and condensed milk. The ice was pretty granular at this shop – not sure if I like it that way…
大蜘蛛
Golden orb spiders (Nephila pilipes): I keep seeing these guys (well, ladies, actually) in the woods. To be honest, they creep me out because I still find them shockingly large. The spread of the legs is about the size of a human hand. Seriously not something that I want to walk into. But thankfully, they’re not really harmful to humans. (more infos: wikipedia ; some research on them )
便所主題餐廳
Well, this is soft serve “ice cream” (it was more like kind of odd frozen yogurt) served in a dish that is modeled after a squat toilet. It was the dessert of a toilet-themed restaurant, which was as ridiculous, yet still stupidly-entertaining as you might imagine. (I got horribly sick directly afterwards, but I am pretty sure that it wasn’t due to the very mediocre food served here…)
寺
Small Buddhist temples are lurking randomly in Taipei. This one is lucky in that it isn’t just nestled between the 7-Eleven and the moped repair place, but actually has a little bit more space to spread out.  But then again, squeezed right into the bustle of the city makes it able to conveniently offer the chance for you to pray in between paying your bills (at 7-Eleven!) and shopping for shoes. This kind of traditional religious presence is definitely not as prevalent on the mainland.

 

Fulbright orientation

How is it that I am already getting behind on updates and I have been here just over a week? But on second thought, there is some sense in that: a lot of things have been happening are for the first or only time, and thus merit some reflection. I think things will settle down into some regular rhythms eventually, and it will feel like I have less to report on.

Last weekend was the Fulbright orientation, which was some part technicalities (reviewing the fine print of the grants that we received, meeting everyone in the office that is most directly responsible for us – ie. whom we should go running to if we encounter bureaucratic tangles about our status in Taiwan), but also some parts fun. We got to meet all of the other Americans who are in Taiwan for similar reasons, although there’s no shortage of Americans to connect with here, it still gives a bond of some similarity. Still, I think that although the Fulbright commission wants us to form a community between grant recipients, given the diversity of work that we are doing and the fact that we’re spread out across the country, and the diversity of recipients in general, it’s not going to be a tightly knit group across all of the grantees.

Regardless of whether or not we had a lot in common, I appreciated the chance to get to see who else is here on the joint dime of US and Taiwanese government money and what they are going to be trying to accomplish. There’s (what seems like) a hoard of English Teaching Assistants (ETA’s), whose (if I may generalize broadly) purpose in this country is to be young, fun Americans teaching English in semi-remote or otherwise somewhat disadvantaged schools. To further generalize broadly about their goals, it seems that they are here to be young, fun Americans in a foreign country (sometimes very specifically Taiwan). And to conclude my broad generalizations about them, there didn’t seem to be anything too complicated about what they will be doing here.

More interesting were some of the other grantees, both in their stories behind what they are going to be doing here and what they intend to do. As I mentioned previously, there is actually a great diversity in the scholars who receive awards from the Fulbright. Sitting around the table were tenured professors with children older than myself; me, fresh from undergrad and probably obviously bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; and then a range of PhD candidates and assistant professors in between. (I think I might actually be the low-outlier of experience. But, hey, it has to be someone, and I don’t exactly have time to run off and go get a master’s degree, so I’ll just do my best and roll with it.) The variety specialties was also broad, from new music composition to using graphics processing units (GPU’s) for faster computer processing, to analyzing ancient texts, to aboriginal education systems…

But what really struck me, was the relationships that everyone had with Taiwan. Everyone had a personal connection to the island in some way. While this was likely something that the selection committee had in mind as a criteria to select candidates, I was still appreciative of the forms that this took. Some had attained American citizenship after immigrating from Taiwan years ago; others had grown up on the island as ex-pats and have now returned to understand their childhood home in a different light.  There were also family connections: parents who had been born here (like me), or those who had married into Taiwanese families. Even with other Americans (non-Fulbrighters) that I’ve run into since being here, it’s pretty common that the reason they have returned to this relatively small corner of the globe because of some kind of connection like the ones listed above. And that’s not surprising: Taiwan probably became a relatively international community with the waves of emigration during the last century. In fact, an entire separate category of passports for “overseas Chinese”, who may have never even been to Taiwan itself, but want to claim their heritage and their relationship. Furthermore, the Taiwanese government has been open to other countries than mainland China for much longer, leading to the higher possibility of a foreigner who can tell stories of Taiwan in the 1970’s and is returning to the island after a hiatus.

I won’t claim to really know the influence that this has on Taiwan’s interesting place the international arena – which may be some soft power or nothing at all. I would say, that the in the common introduction that foreigners exchange,  “what is your connection to this place”, in Taiwan it often extends beyond business.

Another part of the Fulbright orientation was a whirlwind tour of some cultural and historical highlights of Taipei. Unfortunately, most of the stops were just long enough to start to digest what the significance of the location. Thankfully, I’m sure that I’ll have the chance to revisit most of these places with friends or family if they decide to visit. Most of the sites were free, so I’ll just have to find people to go with to revisit them.

國父紀念堂
Changing of the guards at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. It was a fairly involved ceremony with a lot of flashy gun twirling and very slow parade marching. Also, the new guards begin their formal parade on the first floor of the memorial hall and this statue is on the fourth floor. In order to not take forever going up the stairs, they very formally march into the elevator, which was kind of humorous.

Some of the other recipients of the same grant that I received,( the Fulbright Student research grant, although we’re being deemed “Fellows” by the commission here in Taiwan) and I then hit up the Shilin night market together at the end of the orientation activities. Night markets in Taiwan are probably everything that you would want and expect from a market on the street at night in Asia: bustling with people, food, blinking lights, wares of all kinds, smells, open arcades, and things to look at everywhere. Except, unlike the similar places that I’ve been in mainland China, I don’t find myself struggling with as many negative thoughts, like: “why don’t these people think this is kind of gross…?”  “this really is just too many people!” “that ___ looks so cheap that I can’t believe that it’s worth buying at any price – even that ridiculously low one.” I’m not saying that they aren’t full of semi-hygenic food and cheap goods from mainland China, but just to a lesser extent than I’ve seen before.

士林夜市
One of Taipei’s most famous night markets (commonly frequented by tourists and locals alike).

Taiwanese cuisine is often aiming for something referred to as QQ, which is a gummy-chewy texture. Food blogs of the internet have discussed this in more detail than I care to, but just think of boba, or the pearls of tapioca in bubble tea and you get the idea. Night markets are a prime place to go looking for QQ food. I started out enticed by the idea of getting something gummy to chew on as “food” and now have been completely won to the concept that it is an excellent idea.

On that note, I’m going to end this epically long post. I still have more to report (an entire week, in fact), but I’ll just end here for now.

This is the street I’m living on right now. It seems pretty ordinary, but not in a bad way.

Fresh off the plane

It’s the end of my second day in Taiwan, but so much has happened that it feels like I’ve been here for much longer. Yet there’s also still so much that I don’t know, and that I need to sort out, so it also feels like I’ve hardly managed to get my feet wet. Overall, I’m not even sure where to begin.

My first impressions are that this was an excellent decision and such a great opportunity. I’ve had some minor snaffoos but also feel like I am well on my way to having a good and productive time here. I’ve met a lot of people, applied for a resident visa, found an apartment to live in for at least the next month, read a bunch of papers and have an exciting direction to start on research.

Still much to figure out – everything from where to buy toilet paper and what to do with trash and also actually making friends – but definitely getting started! I have found everyone here really is nice and accommodating: for example, the taxi driver who helped me take my luggage from my hotel to the apartment was really sweet and undercharged me. I only wish I had made him take the extra money, but it still feels like my reactions to everything that is going on are a little bit slow. I’ll just have to look for some opportunities to pay the kindness forward, I suppose.

Tomorrow and the day after are meetings with the rest of the Fulbrighters. I’m looking forward to it, but also looking forward to next week when I can actually get down to work.

First Post!

Here’s to my first post of what will hopefully be a collection (although my previous experience in writing blogs has proven that I am not the most reliable). I’m starting this to record some of the experiences of my ten month stay in Taiwan starting tomorrow (sort of – with the time difference and traveling, I actually won’t arrive in Taipei until what will be September 5).

What will I be doing during that time? To be honest, I actually don’t have a solid answer for that. I can tell you what I would like to be doing: I received a Fulbright student grant to do research on the environmental impact of organic and regular high mountain tea farming. I wrote the proposal because I think I’d like to be doing just that. I imagine it would be like this: plenty of days out hiking around beautiful, misty tea farms, learning about tea agriculture, taking breaks to sample and discuss tea culture and spending some time in labs learning cool new lab techniques. But I am also approaching this experience openly, considering that I have a lot to learn about Taiwan, tea farming and analytical lab techniques, it’s entirely possible that the three don’t mix well, or that there will be other reasons why this idea doesn’t pan out. In fact, I find it highly unlikely that reality will be anything like the above scenario, but there is only one way to find out.

So instead, I am going with broader goals to learn as much about Taiwan and environmental science research that is going on there (and elsewhere) as I can. If it turns out that I can swing this to include tea farming – great. If not, I hope that I can find other projects that are fruitful instead. I’ve been talking to biogeochemistry researchers at Academia Sinica and National Taiwan Normal University and I plan to explore the projects that they are working on as well as the feasibility of the tea plantation research that I want to do.

On top of that, I hope to learn a lot about Taiwan, make friends with Taiwanese people, take my mandarin to a whole new level of fluency and usefulness, and travel around the country to see the beautiful things that I’ve heard about it.

I’m really excited, but also nervous because there are still so many unknowns. I spent a lot of time stressing out about what I will be doing and how I will do it and where I will do it and when and… getting very worried while trying to plan for things that I don’t really have a feel for.

However, I have also been assured countless times that Taiwanese people are friendly, and that the food is good. How, then, can I go wrong?